Sunday 6th December 2020
I always know something serious is happening when a new initiative is upgraded from being described as “ground breaking” in the media release to “game changer” . Mind you, the much derided NHS Covid app was once so described, but that must be the exception to the rule. Go North East (GNE)’s ‘virtual launch’ of its Voltra branded electric buses last weekend looked very much to be living up to said mantle so I couldn’t resist a quick trip to the north east yesterday to check out the “game changing” fleet of new buses.
They’re the “first fully-electric bus fleet in the North East” and come capable of “all-day service with a single overnight charge”. Total cost comes in at £3.7 million for the nine buses and depot infrastructure at GNE’s Gateshead Riverside garage where charging equipment has been installed for an eventual fleet of 30 such buses. GNE has invested £2 million with the rest coming from the Government’s Ultra-Low Emission Bus Fund.
GNE is keen to say the buses are powered by clean sources of electricity such as solar, wind and hydro which is very clever to know that is the particular blend of “juice” coming out the nozzle when the Gateshead bus garage switch is turned on each night.
The usual razzmatazz bus launch was not appropriate for current Covid times so instead we were all invited to enjoy an 83 second video play out on social media featuring a symbolic large switch switched on; atmospheric light emitting electricity represented by graphics across the Tyne bridges; images of all the on-board gizmos; and best of all, hero of the show, GNE’s much loved (and rightly so) managing director, Martijn Gilbert, emerging as the dry ice cleared from a mood lighted line up of buses ready for action behind the arm-folded serious-looking ‘we mean business’ Voltra driver and maintenance team. It was a Chloe Leach production (from the Leach-O’connell Consultancy) at its best. Even Secretary of State, Grant Shapps, saw fit to give it a retweet last week.
“We’ve flipped the switch. Now it’s your turn. Be the change. Voltra – zero emission electric buses for Gateshead and Newcastle” comes the suitably gravel sounding X-Factor style voice-over at the video’s end as the nine bus fleet head off into service in the darkness of an early dawn heralding in a new era of game changing bus travel – well, I think that’s what it was representing. It was a very good watch and, frankly, far better than any ceremonial dignitary ribbon cutting cup cake distributing boring speech giving real life launch any day. Take a look at it here.
The buses are the same Yutong E10 electric buses introduced by First Bus in Leeds which I reviewed a month ago; however that’s where the similarity ends. GNE have given these buses an eye catching (Best Impressions devised) “futuristic” silvery grey based livery with smart graphics which makes the best of the brick like bus shape as well as a well thought out interior creating a “bus of the future experience”.
Alongside the usual next stop display and audio, wifi and at seat usb and wireless charging point, personal bell push, mobile phone holder and coat hook, the buses also feature tap-on, tap-off (a first for GNE – with a £3 a day, £13 a week cap) and air conditioning.
Like the Leeds buses there are 17 seats in the raised rear portion including some very high steps up to the rearmost 13…
…. with 12 easy access seats in the front low floor section together with four tip up seats and a back to back arrangement over the offside front wheel arch making for 35 in all.
The seats themselves are described by GNE as “comfy and plush trimmed with stylish British moquette paired with environmentally friendly vinyl fabrics”.
They’re right. I found the seats very comfy and they certainly look plush and smart.
Voltra buses are being used on GNE’s circular route 53/54 which link Saltwell Park with Gateshead and Newcastle. As you’d expect there’s a very attractive leaflet to a style that matches the branding on the buses.
It contains a timetable, map and other helpful information.
As you can see, route 53/54 is an intensive and busy ten minute frequency round trip of just over half an hour service. Four buses are needed to run the clockwise (53) and anti-clockwise (54) circuits with stand time taken in central Newcastle.
I took a couple of hop-on and hop-off rides both ways around the circuit yesterday morning and passenger numbers were fair bearing in mind the current tier 3 travel guidance in the north east. The busiest bus on route 54 coming into Gateshead Interchange had 18 adults and two children on board but many were couples or families able to sit together so there were no issues with social distancing. Mask wearing was noticeably good.
Inside the buses it was also noticeable the absence of full-on notices about Covid and all the associated stuff. Indeed the only reference to any restrictions/procedures was a subtle roping off of the back to back seats behind the driver and some small size symbols and messages on the rear of the wheelchair space facing next stop display, which were hard to read as they were so small.
The roped off seats are the odd size ones over the front offside wheel where you’re not sure whether they’re meant for one or two people.
GNE have included a magazine style rack alongside the forward facing seat which makes it obvious it’s a single seat ….
…. and the moquette design makes the wider rear facing seat also look like it’s for just one person. In any event they’re both currently out of use.
I was also struck by the absence of lots of shouty notices inside telling me how much carbon I’m saving by making a journey on an electric bus or similar exhortations, the main reference I spotted was as you board by the driver’s cab door and some subtle information on the well designed cove panels.
I applaud this approach as I’m more interested in helpful practical information nicely presented like a route map and ticket prices etc and these are tastefully included in these buses.
The Voltra brand name does feature inside the buses and this has connotations of electricity – voltage – and there are rightly references on the outside of the bus telling the wider community of its emission free status.
The interior ambiance created by the clever use of colour and lighting along with the smart moquette and novel ‘grass looking’ floor covering really does make for a very attractive look.
Although I noticed the rear “grass” was already looking a little dirty, but that may be to give a winter time ‘muddy’ effect, and if not, hopefully it will be nothing a good mop over won’t remove.
Another nice feature is the depiction in the panel behind the driver of a local iconic building or landmark.
I didn’t have time to spot all nine, assuming each bus has a unique picture and I always think these additions are a great idea to make buses part of the local community. What about naming each bus with the building/landmark featured for even more effect?
It’s great to see GNE leading the way with innovation of this kind but it’s also essential to ensure “game changer” buses don’t get held up in traffic and become unreliable. Gateshead and Newcastle have a reputation for congestion and sure enough by lunch time yesterday there were delays and queues at the region’s hot spots.
Despite heroic attempts by GNE drivers there was inevitable minor bus bunching on an intensive service like the 53/54 which doesn’t venture far from crowded city centres and the inevitable impact on timekeeping. Some judicious bus priority wouldn’t go amiss – how about it Nexus?
All credit to GNE that the location of every bus is available on the company’s website and app so passengers can make informed choices of which bus to catch from any bus stop on the circuit, although it’s a shame the 53 and 54 are shown separately as it might be helpful for them to be combined on one map when waiting in the Saltwell Park area.
It was good to see all the buses I travelled on had full racks displaying the attractive timetable leaflet for passengers to pick up for those who prefer printed information (eg me)
Despite enjoying concessionary travel by dint of age and complimentary travel by dint of a Go-Ahead career I thought I’d try out the new tap on and tap off facility and see if the £3 daily cap worked.
And I managed to remember to tap off each time, although on one bus the reader wasn’t working but the driver said I could use the one on the cab door instead. After my trips my credit card balance was showing the usual ‘holding’ deduction of 1p (twice, for some odd reason) on checking yesterday afternoon but checking this morning, both entries have disappeared and so far the expected £3 charge hasn’t been listed. Based on my try out with Brighton & Hove and Metrobus a year ago it’ll probably turn up some time tomorrow once the “back office” has done its bit.
The next stop displays weren’t working on the buses I travelled on yesterday and instead a smart Voltra brand name was displayed …
…. while on another bus the display had frozen at a stop in Bensham.
I understand there have been some initial teething problems with a fault developing on Friday but I’m sure it’ll soon be fixed
And it’s commendable a display is available facing the wheelchair bay (as shown above).
Voltra is a world away from the utilitarian look of the same buses in Leeds and shows what can be achieved with professional design input. Sure it costs more, but if we are to have any hope of getting motorists to “switch” on board, a professional approach to bus design and presentation is essential.
Much very careful thought has obviously gone into making these buses attractive and desirable. You can tell there’s been significant attention to points of detail that all add up to make a true “game changer”. It’s a worthy moniker.
Well done to everyone involved.